I have to be honest.
When I graduated college in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and moved, not back to my hometown, but to an even smaller town 30 minutes down the road — a town small enough to be dubbed a village — it seemed like the punchline of a bad movie. The plans I had for my career, my social life, my early 20s, had been taken away in an instant.
I spent weeks reminding myself that this was only temporary, but then weeks turned into months and I had spent so much time envying my peers who ended up in New York and Chicago that I had neglected to identify the rare and remarkable facets of the world I had found myself in. It wasn’t until I began contemplating leaving that I was able to recognize the copious reasons to stay. “Twenty-four” and “cornfield” weren’t words I wanted to put in the same sentence, but I found many others that I did. Words like “community,” “exploration,” “diligence.”
A friend from New York visited me recently. She grew up in Dallas, stayed in St. Louis during undergrad, studied abroad one summer in London, and moved to Brooklyn a few months after graduation. We sat on a worn blanket in a park I had found a few months after moving back to central Illinois and drank large McDonald’s sodas. I gave her a brief tour of the village where I live and as we sat staring at the cornfields, she sighed wistfully and said, “I would love to live here.”
At the time, I found this shocking. She had been to so many places and seen so many things. It had never occurred to me that the attributes I had considered mundane would reveal themselves as breathtaking were they not so familiar, that the sprawling fields and wide-open skies were just as impressive, in their own way, as mountains and beaches and skyscrapers.
Anyone with an open mind and a willingness to do more than pout and watch reruns of Project Runway, as I had been known to do in the months after college graduation, doesn’t need to be told there are plenty of things to do in Illinois. Anyone with internet access and enough patience for a 30-second Google search can find that there are museums, wineries, concerts, rock climbing gyms, hiking trails, art festivals and trivia nights all over central Illinois.
And beyond that there are the hidden gems — the dive bars and public parks off country roads with enough silence to find the scraps of peace that have become so rare as of late. When I moved back to central Illinois, I found that recreation was not about stumbling upon something interesting enough to do, but rather, being interested enough to look for it.
And behind the things to do are the people who have made those things possible. Over the last two years I’ve met countless bartenders and business owners in Peoria, Morton, Bloomington, Washington, etc. who set up shop here simply because they love it. Sure, it’s a good place to raise kids and start a family. Yes, the rent is cheaper than it is on the east and west coasts. But it’s more than that. They like the patrons, they revel in the community, and they find solace in the candor so generously offered by those around them.
There are things that could be improved upon. I’m not unaware of the challenges that making friends and meeting people present. Since central Illinois is such a great place to raise a family, it seems that many of the people I meet are at a very different place in life than I am. It’s not always easy to relate to someone who is prioritizing school districts over the proximity to downtown. I doubt I’m the only 20-something who feels that way.
I wish it was easier to connect. I wish there were more places of business that kept us 20-somethings in mind. I wish there were fewer ice storms in February. I wish I could DoorDash something other than Cracker Barrel to my little village. No place is perfect.
To put it plainly, I don’t know if central Illinois is “forever” for this 20-something, but it is my “right now.”
And right now, it is more than enough.